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The Book Trail: From Country Diaries to Trailblazing Women

I take as the starting point for this edition of The Book Trail my most recent review, of Edith Holden’s beautiful The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. As ever, I have used the ‘Readers also enjoyed’ tab on Goodreads to generate this list. Let me know if anything here piques your interest!

1. The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady by Edith Holden

‘Edith Holden’s words, all carefully written by hand, include her favourite poems, personal thoughts and observations on the wildlife she saw surrounding her home in Warwickshire, and on her travels through England and Scotland. The exquisitely beautiful paintings on every page of birds, butterflies, bees and flowers, reflect her deep love of nature; they have been executed with a naturalist’s eye for detail, and the sensitivity of an artist.

For seventy years, this enchanting and unique book has lain undiscovered; it is now being published for the first time in a full-colour facsimile edition that recapture all the freshness, charm and beauty of the original.’

2. Floriography: An Illustrated Guide to the Victorian Language of Flowers by Jessica Roux

Floriography is a full-color guide to the historical uses and secret meanings behind an impressive array of flowers and herbs. The book explores the coded significances associated with various blooms, from flowers for a lover to flowers for an enemy.

The language of flowers was historically used as a means of secret communication. It soared in popularity during the 19th century, especially in Victorian England and the U.S., when proper etiquette discouraged open displays of emotion. Mysterious and playful, the language of flowers has roots in everything from the characteristics of the plant to its presence in folklore and history. Researched and illustrated by popular artist Jessica Roux, this book makes a stunning display piece, conversation-starter, or thoughtful gift.’

3. Unearthing the Secret Garden: The Plants and Places That Inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett by Marta McDowell

New York Times bestselling author Marta McDowell has revealed the way that plants have stirred some of our most cherished authors, including Beatrix Potter, Emily Dickinson, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. In her latest, she shares a moving account of how gardening deeply inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett, the author of the beloved children’s classic The Secret Garden.
 
In Unearthing The Secret Garden, best-selling author Marta McDowell delves into the professional and gardening life of Frances Hodgson Burnett. Complementing her fascinating account with charming period photographs and illustrations, McDowell paints an unforgettable portrait of a great artist and reminds us why The Secret Garden continues to touch readers after more than a century. This deeply moving and gift-worthy book is a must-read for fans of The Secret Garden and anyone who loves the story behind the story.’

4. Otherlands: A Journey Through Earth’s Extinct Worlds by Thomas Halliday

‘The past is past, but it does leave clues, and Thomas Halliday has used cutting-edge science to decipher them more completely than ever before. In Otherlands, Halliday makes sixteen fossil sites burst to life on the page.

This book is an exploration of the Earth as it used to exist, the changes that have occurred during its history, and the ways that life has found to adapt―or not. It takes us from the savannahs of Pliocene Kenya to watch a python chase a group of australopithecines into an acacia tree; to a cliff overlooking the salt pans of the empty basin of what will be the Mediterranean Sea just as water from the Miocene Atlantic Ocean spills in; into the tropical forests of Eocene Antarctica; and under the shallow pools of Ediacaran Australia, where we glimpse the first microbial life.

Otherlands also offers us a vast perspective on the current state of the planet. The thought that something as vast as the Great Barrier Reef, for example, with all its vibrant diversity, might one day soon be gone sounds improbable. But the fossil record shows us that this sort of wholesale change is not only possible but has repeatedly happened throughout Earth history.

Even as he operates on this broad canvas, Halliday brings us up close to the intricate relationships that defined these lost worlds. In novelistic prose that belies the breadth of his research, he illustrates how ecosystems are formed; how species die out and are replaced; and how species migrate, adapt, and collaborate. It is a breathtaking achievement: a surprisingly emotional narrative about the persistence of life, the fragility of seemingly permanent ecosystems, and the scope of deep time, all of which have something to tell us about our current crisis.’

5. The Treeline: The Last Forest and the Future of Life on Earth by Ben Rawlence

‘For the last fifty years, the trees of the boreal forest have been moving north. Ben Rawlence’s The Treeline takes us along this critical frontier of our warming planet from Norway to Siberia, Alaska to Greenland, to meet the scientists, residents and trees confronting huge geological changes. Only the hardest species survive at these latitudes including the ice-loving Dahurian larch of Siberia, the antiseptic Spruce that purifies our atmosphere, the Downy birch conquering Scandinavia, the healing Balsam poplar that Native Americans use as a cure-all and the noble Scots Pine that lives longer when surrounded by its family.

It is a journey of wonder and awe at the incredible creativity and resilience of these species and the mysterious workings of the forest upon which we rely for the air we breathe. Blending reportage with the latest science, The Treeline is a story of what might soon be the last forest left and what that means for the future of all life on earth.’

6. Worn: A People’s History of Clothing by Sofi Thanhauser

‘A sweeping and captivatingly told history of clothing and the stuff it’s made of–an unparalleled deep dive into how we’ve made what we wear, and how our garments have transformed our societies, our planet, and our lives.

In this ambitious, panoramic social history, Sofi Thanhauser brilliantly tells five stories–Linen, Cotton, Silk, Synthetics, Wool–about the clothes we wear and where they come from, illuminating our world in unexpected ways. She takes us from the opulent court of Louis Quatorze to the labor camps in modern-day Chinese-occupied Xinjiang. We see how textiles were once dyed from lichen, shells, bark, saffron, and beetles, displaying distinctive regional weaves and knits, and how the modern Western garment industry has refashioned our attire into the homogenous and disposable uniforms popularized by fast fashion brands. Thanhauser makes clear how the clothing industry has become one of the planet’s worst polluters, relying on chronically underpaid and exploited laborers. But she also shows us how micro-communities and companies of textile and clothing makers in every corner of the world are rediscovering ancestral and ethical methods for making what we wear.

Drawn from years of intensive research and reporting from around the world, and brimming with fascinating anecdotal material, Worn reveals to us that our clothing comes not just from the countries listed on the tags or ready-made from our factories–it comes, as well, from deep in our histories.’

7. Free: Coming of Age at the End of History by Lea Ypi

‘For precocious 11-year-old Lea Ypi, Albania’s Soviet-style socialism held the promise of a preordained future, a guarantee of security among enthusiastic comrades. That is, until she found herself clinging to a stone statue of Joseph Stalin, newly beheaded by student protests.

Communism had failed to deliver the promised utopia. One’s “biography”—class status and other associations long in the past—put strict boundaries around one’s individual future. When Lea’s parents spoke of relatives going to “university” or “graduating,” they were speaking of grave secrets Lea struggled to unveil. And when the early ’90s saw Albania and other Balkan countries exuberantly begin a transition to the “free market,” Western ideals of freedom delivered chaos: a dystopia of pyramid schemes, organized crime, and sex trafficking.

With her elegant, intellectual, French-speaking grandmother; her radical-chic father; and her staunchly anti-socialist, Thatcherite mother to guide her through these disorienting times, Lea had a political education of the most colorful sort—here recounted with outstanding literary talent. Now one of the world’s most dynamic young political thinkers and a prominent leftist voice in the United Kingdom, Lea offers a fresh and invigorating perspective on the relation between the personal and the political, between values and identity, posing urgent questions about the cost of freedom.’

8. Windswept: Walking the Paths of Trailblazing Women by Annabel Abbs

‘Annabel Abbs’s Windswept: Walking the Paths of Trailblazing Women is a beautifully written meditation on connecting with the outdoors through the simple act of walking. In captivating and elegant prose, Abbs follows in the footsteps of women who boldly reclaimed wild landscapes for themselves, including Georgia O’Keeffe in the empty plains of Texas and New Mexico, Nan Shepherd in the mountains of Scotland, Gwen John following the French River Garonne, Daphne du Maurier along the River Rhône, and Simone de Beauvoir—who walked as much as twenty-five miles a day in a dress and espadrilles—through the mountains and forests of France.

Part historical inquiry and part memoir, the stories of these writers and artists are laced together by moments in Abb’s own life, beginning with her poet father who raised her in the Welsh countryside as an “experiment,” according to the principles of Rousseau. Abbs explores a forgotten legacy of moving on foot and discovers how it has helped women throughout history to find their voices, to reimagine their lives, and to break free from convention.

As Abbs traces the paths of exceptional women, she realizes that she, too, is walking away from her past and into a radically different future. Windswept crosses continents and centuries in a provocative and poignant account of the power of walking in nature.’

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‘The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady’ by Edith Holden *****

I have wanted to read Edith Holden’s The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady for many years now, after seeing some effusive reviews before I had even entered the world of blogging about literature. I had found it difficult to find an affordable copy which was in good condition, but luckily I thought to search for it on my local library’s catalogue, and found a lovely facsimile reproduction housed in the county store.

Holden was born in Kings Norton in Worcestershire in 1871, and grew up in a small Warwickshire village with her family. Here, she wrote and illustrated ‘Nature Notes for 1906’; however, the book was not published under its current title, The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, until 1977. Holden tragically drowned in the Thames in 1920, whilst collecting buds from chestnut trees at Kew.

In this beautiful book, Holden ‘recorded in words and paintings the flora and fauna of the British countryside through the changing seasons of the year’. She wrote everything by hand, and this has touchingly been reproduced, along with several original spelling errors. Alongside darling watercolours of the nature which she observed in her local area, Holden recorded fragments of her favourite poems by the likes of Burns, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Barrett Browning, and personal observations. Included in this volume are recollections from extended family holidays in Scotland and Devon.

As one would expect from a diary, The Country Diary… has been split into separate months. Each begins with a memorandum-style page or two, which collect together facts about the month, and titbits which Holden felt were relevant, such as rhymes and old wives’ tales. In January, for instance, she records that the month was ‘named from the Roman god Janus, who is represented with his faces looking in opposite directions – as retrospective to the past, and prospective to the coming year.’ She has also noted special dates and bank holidays throughout, some of which she calls ‘Feast Days etc’. Some of the entries for separate days contain weather conditions, or things of note which she saw on that given day.

The detail here is absolutely charming. On January 23rd, she records: ‘Went for a country walk. Every thing on every tree and bush was outlined in silver tracery against the sky; some of the dead grasses and seed-vessels growing by the road-side were specially beautiful; every detail of them sparkling with frost crystals in the sunshine.’ Her entry three days later begins: ‘The last few weeks, our own and our neighbours’ gardens have been haunted by a very curious Robin.’ On June 7th, she observes: ‘There is a fine show of wild roses… In many places the hedges are festooned with wreathes of Black Bryony and Honeysuckle. The pale pink Blackberry blossom and the large, white masses of Elder blossom are everywhere conspicuous. Climbing up the banks to meet them are tall purple fox-gloves and nodding heads of grasses heavy with pollen, mingled with Purple and Yellow Hatches and Clover blossom.’

Holden was an incredibly talented woman, particularly with regard to her artwork. On every single page, it is clear that she gave such consideration to everything she put down on paper. Every double page spread in The Country Diary… contains at least one gorgeous watercolour. Holden’s drawings of flowers and foliage are perfectly precise, as are her depictions of different bird species, and their eggs. I also really admired that she gave the Latinate names for everything included.

One sad thing to note here is that Holden’s book was written over a century ago. I noticed that some of the species which she talks about as being common – birds, butterflies, and flowers – are things which I have never seen anywhere in Britain.

The Country Diary… is a wonderful almanac, which I thoroughly appreciated. It is wonderful both to read from cover to cover, or to dip in and out of. It is an incredibly lovely homage to the natural world, and keen naturalists will surely find of interest how much has changed in the intervening eleven decades. I very much look forward to revisiting it in future, and hopefully getting my hands on a copy which I can add to my collection, and treasure.

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Six Recommendations

1. The Gaps by Leanne Hall

Leanne Hall’s The Gaps really caught my attention, and when I began to read, I struggled to put it down. Centred around a school in Australia, and dealing with some incredibly pertinent issues, such as poverty and homelessness, with both sensitivity and realism, I found The Gaps to be very far indeed from a typical young adult novel. The characters are incredibly realistic, and each has a distinct voice. I very much look forward to reading whatever Hall turns her attention to next.

2. A Nail, A Rose by Madeleine Bourdouxhe

A Nail, A Rose is a fascinating collection of short stories, collected from across Belgian author Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s writing life. I thoroughly enjoyed the prose style, and found that the translation has been handled wonderfully. I particularly admired the focus upon women, their inner lives, and outer mundanity of the day-to-day (something which I have been interested in for many years). Some of the stories here are truly excellent. I just wish this had been a lot longer!

3. Late Fragments: Everything I Want to Tell You by Kate Gross

I seem to be reviewing a lot of books of late which I have never heard of, but which catch my eye in my local library. Late Fragments: Everything I Want to Tell You by Kate Gross is one such tome. At the age of 34, Gross, who worked for both Labour Party Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer. She passed away on Christmas morning, 2014, leaving behind her husband and young twin sons. Late Fragments is her searingly honest memoir, which deals with so many elements of her disease, as well as recapturing something of her earlier life. Gross’ writing is beautiful, and highly reflective, as one might expect.

4. With Teeth by Kristen Arnett

Kristen Arnett’s second novel is smart, acerbic, and witty. The story centres around two married women, who live in Florida with their terror of a son. In With Teeth, Arnett focuses on the breakdown of relationships. Her observations are sharp and realistic, and she deals with several deep topics throughout. If you are looking to pick up a very focused character study, I would highly recommend seeking out this novel.

5. Fry’s Ties: The Life and Times of a Tie Collection by Stephen Fry

If you are going to pick up this rather niche book, all about British hero Stephen Fry’s extensive tie collection, I highly recommend listening to the audiobook, narrated throughout in the author’s velvety tones. Before coming to this, I had no idea that anyone could make ties something akin to fascinating to a woman who has never worn one. Fry managed this feat, however. There is a lot about fashion history here, which I very much appreciated, and I found it entertaining from start to finish. Fry is excellent company for both hobbies and chores around the house, and I truly wish this book had been a longer listen!

6. Letter to My Rage: An Evolution by Lidia Yuknavitch

Lidia Yuknavitch’s Letter to My Rage is an incredibly short essay, which sings with both amusement and sardonic comments. I found Yuknavitch’s commentary incredibly current and to the point. She is also incredibly anti-Trump, which is always welcome to this reader. Highly pertinent, dark, and visceral, Letter to My Rage is revealing of its author. I also enjoyed it far more than her fiction.

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‘Under Storm’s Wing’ by Helen Thomas *****

Helen Thomas’ Under Storm’s Wing is one of those books which I have wanted to read for years, but which has proved difficult to get hold of; in this case, copies were unaffordable. I finally managed to find a secondhand edition of the Carcanet publication for less than £10, which may well be my bargain of the year.

Under Storm’s Wing is a veritable treasure trove. It brings together two volumes of memoir – As It Was, and World Without End – Helen’s letters, written between 1896 and 1917, A Remembered Harvest, and a selection of recollections of her youngest daughter Myfanwy. Helen’s husband, Edward Thomas, is one of my favourite poets, and whilst I knew a little about Helen before I picked this up, I was gratified that it was highly illuminating.

As It Was (1926) takes as its focus Helen and Edward’s early relationship and marriage, and was written soon after he was killed during the First World War at the Battle of Arras, France, in 1917. The first of her memoirs ends with the birth of their first son, Merfyn. World Without End was written several years afterwards, in 1931. Helen’s second memoir covers a wider span of time than her first.

As It Was begins with Helen speaking expansively about her childhood: ‘Our life was very happy, very social, very united. We were unconventional, though in no startling way – just informal and unselfconscious.’ She then reveals when she first met Edward, after her literary reviewer father is asked to read some of his work, and invites him to the house. Helen describes her first meeting with the ‘shy and constrained’ Edward, noticing that his ‘eyes were grey and dreamy and meditative, but fearless and steady, and as if trying to pierce the truth itself. It was a most striking face, recalling a portrait of Shelley in its sensitive, melancholy beauty.’

Helen captures similarly lovely moments throughout. She writes, for instance: ‘I remember in that first walk how we scrambled about in a little roadside copse. It must have been winter or early spring, for the trees were bare, and Edward showed me many old nests, telling me the names of the birds which had made them, and pointing out to me their special characteristics. Later on he brought me as a present a most beautifully compact, moss-covered nest of a chaffinch, which I could hardly believe was the work of a bird, and all my wonder pleased and amused him in his grave way.’ She goes on: ‘And all his knowledge of everything we saw, and all his intimacy – everything lifted me at once into a new world.’

Throughout, I admired Helen’s honesty. She shows herself as a bold and daring young woman. She is revealing about her innermost self, about the intimacies she shared with Edward, and her naïve ideas regarding sex and desire. She recalls, with vivid clarity: ‘I had often cried bitterly in the thought that no man could ever love me, and that my longing for children would never be satisfied. I had so persuaded myself of this that it never entered my mind as a possibility until that moment when Edward took my hand; and even then I did not consciously think of love; all I felt was an unrest, a fear, a thrill, perhaps also a hope.’

The depictions here regarding Edward’s ever-present struggles with mental health are revealing. Helen tells us: ‘There were many dark periods when we were here [living on a farm in the Weald of Kent], many days of silence and wretchedness and separation, for sometimes in these moods Edward would stride away, perhaps for days, wrestling with the devil that tormented his spirit.’

Helen’s writing is beautiful, filled with glorious and expansive descriptions. On their honeymoon spent in Wiltshire, she reflects: ‘We washed in rain-water… Outside the owls hooted about the cottage, and bats twittered, and starlings stirred in the thatch. No other sound was to be heard, no trams, no people, no traffic, nothing but the sounds that do not spoil silence, but rather deepen it, and a little breeze wandering through the wood, and a leaf flapping against our window.’

Myfanwy’s contribution is an excerpt from her longer memoir, One of These Fine Days. Myfanwy also contributed the preface to this volume, which was first collected together in 1988. She recollects that her mother wrote both volumes of her memoir ‘as therapy, to try to rouse [her] from the terrible lethargy and desolation which followed Edward’s death…’.

Under Storm’s Wing is a wonderful anthology, and I found it to be far more open than I would expect of a book written during this period. There is much written about the natural world, and Helen’s discovery of the countryside after spending her entire childhood in towns and cities. Under Storm’s Wing is a touching, moving, and thoughtful collection, and is a book to really linger over.

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Eight Very Long Books Worthy of Your Time

I tend to opt for midsize books, or short ones, but every so often, I will settle down with such a large tome that I will inevitably end up with aching wrists from holding it up for so long. However, sometimes, these very long – and sometimes pain-inducing – books are very much worth the effort, and the time it takes to read them. I have collected together eight books which took me quite a while to get through, but which I thoroughly enjoyed, in the hopes that you too will (carefully!) pick them up.

  1. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

‘It is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men, who have met in secret to discuss a series of unsolved crimes. A wealthy man has vanished, a whore has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely patterned as the night sky.’

2. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

War and Peace centers broadly on Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 and follows three of the best-known characters in literature: Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a count who is fighting for his inheritance and yearning for spiritual fulfillment; Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, who leaves behind his family to fight in the war against Napoleon; and Natasha Rostov, the beautiful young daughter of a nobleman, who intrigues both men. As Napoleon’s army invades, Tolstoy vividly follows characters from diverse backgrounds—peasants and nobility, civilians and soldiers—as they struggle with the problems unique to their era, their history, and their culture. And as the novel progresses, these characters transcend their specificity, becoming some of the most moving—and human—figures in world literature.’

3. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

‘Marie-Laure lives in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where her father works. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, Werner Pfennig, an orphan, grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find that brings them news and stories from places they have never seen or imagined. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments and is enlisted to use his talent to track down the resistance. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, Doerr illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.

From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the stunningly beautiful instant New York Times bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.’

4. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

‘England in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe opposes him. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell: a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people, and implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph?’

5. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

‘For centuries, the story of Dracula has captured the imagination of readers and storytellers alike. Kostova’s breathtaking first novel, ten years in the writing, is an accomplished retelling of this ancient tale. “The story that follows is one I never intended to commit to paper… As an historian, I have learned that, in fact, not everyone who reaches back into history can survive it.” With these words, a nameless narrator unfolds a story that began 30 years earlier.

Late one night in 1972, as a 16-year-old girl, she discovers a mysterious book and a sheaf of letters in her father’s library—a discovery that will have dreadful and far-reaching consequences, and will send her on a journey of mind-boggling danger. While seeking clues to the secrets of her father’s past and her mother’s puzzling disappearance, she follows a trail from London to Istanbul to Budapest and beyond, and learns that the letters in her possession provide a link to one of the world’s darkest and most intoxicating figures. Generation after generation, the legend of Dracula has enticed and eluded both historians and opportunists alike. Now a young girl undertakes the same search that ended in the death and defilement of so many others—in an attempt to save her father from an unspeakable fate.’

6. Middlemarch by George Eliot

‘Taking place in the years leading up to the First Reform Bill of 1832, Middlemarch explores nearly every subject of concern to modern life: art, religion, science, politics, self, society, human relationships. Among her characters are some of the most remarkable portraits in English literature: Dorothea Brooke, the heroine, idealistic but naive; Rosamond Vincy, beautiful and egoistic: Edward Casaubon, the dry-as-dust scholar: Tertius Lydgate, the brilliant but morally-flawed physician: the passionate artist Will Ladislaw: and Fred Vincey and Mary Garth, childhood sweethearts whose charming courtship is one of the many humorous elements in the novel’s rich comic vein.’

7. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

‘Aged thirteen, Theo Decker, son of a devoted mother and a reckless, largely absent father, survives an accident that otherwise tears his life apart. Alone and rudderless in New York, he is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. He is tormented by an unbearable longing for his mother, and down the years clings to the thing that most reminds him of her: a small, strangely captivating painting that ultimately draws him into the criminal underworld. As he grows up, Theo learns to glide between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love – and his talisman, the painting, places him at the centre of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.

The Goldfinch is a haunted odyssey through present-day America and a drama of enthralling power. Combining unforgettably vivid characters and thrilling suspense, it is a beautiful, addictive triumph – a sweeping story of loss and obsession, of survival and self-invention, of the deepest mysteries of love, identity and fate.’

8. A Notable Woman: The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt

‘In April 1925, Jean Lucey Pratt began writing a journal. She continued to write until just a few days before her death in 1986, producing well over a million words in 45 exercise books over the course of her lifetime. For sixty years, no one had an inkling of her diaries’ existence, and they have remained unpublished until now.

Jean wrote about anything that amused, inspired or troubled her, laying bare every aspect of her life with aching honesty, infectious humour, indelicate gossip and heartrending hopefulness. She recorded her yearnings and her disappointments in love, from schoolgirl crushes to disastrous adult affairs. She documented the loss of a tennis match, her unpredictable driving, catty friends, devoted cats and difficult guests. With Jean we live through the tumult of the Second World War and the fears of a nation. We see Britain hurtling through a period of unbridled transformation, and we witness the shifting landscape for women in society.

As Jean’s words propel us back in time, A Notable Woman becomes a unique slice of living, breathing British history and a revealing private chronicle of life in the twentieth century.’

Have you read any of these? Which is your favourite long book, which may or may not have caused you an injury?

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‘The Breaks’ by Julietta Singh ****

I spotted Julietta Singh’s memoir, The Breaks, whilst browsing on Daunt Books’ website, and just had to read it. The book has been published by Daunt as part of their Originals list, and it has been incredibly well received. In its blurb, reviewers compare it to James Baldwin’s A Letter to My Nephew, and herald it a tender, and ‘beautiful’ coming-of-age story.

The Breaks is an extended letter, written by Singh to her young daughter. Her aim is to ‘write towards a new vision of the world, inspired by her child’s radical embrace of possibility as a model for how we might live’. Wrapped up in the entire narrative is a commentary on the climate change which threatens our existence, and which she believes her daughter will experience the full effects of during her life. She says: ‘I am writing to you, and to future you. I am writing to the six-year-old girl you are now… I am writing to the becoming-being that you are, the one who will face a world in ruin and undoubtedly wonder over my place in all this destruction.’ Singh believes that if we are able, globally, to ‘survive the looming political and ecological disasters, we must break from the conventions we have inherited and begin to orient ourselves towards more equitable and revolutionary paths.’

Along with the ever-present threat of climate change, Singh also examines ‘the violent legacies of racism, patriarchy, and colonialism’, and the effects which all of these have already had in her daughter’s young life. The narrative opens with an account of her daughter being taught ‘a whitewashed story at school about how the first people of this land were happy to give their sacred spaces to the consumptive force of European men in the name of civilisation and progress.’ She proceeds to tell her daughter this story rather differently: ‘I will never forget the way you looked at me then, your head slightly tilted to one side, your eyes wide in bewilderment… This is not what my teacher told us, you said with unmistakable agitation. I know that for the first time you were confronting the existence of conflicting worldviews, a vital gulf between your formal education and your maternal one.’

Throughout, Singh has a real awareness of what ties herself to her daughter. She reflects, for instance: ‘Our blood is laced with modern histories of unbelievable violence. It is a strange and hybrid brew that you will feel in your body across your life, as I have always felt it in mine.’ Throughout, I really enjoyed her discussions about the physical body in the world, and the differing versions of history which can exist everywhere – in textbooks, in films and cartoons, and in the education system, to name just a few examples.

Another of the real strengths in The Breaks is the commentary Singh gives to the meaning of identity, and how difficult this can be to pin down. Her own family history is rich, and complicated. ‘Being as diasporic as we are,’ she says, ‘I find I have no traditional knowledge to bestow upon you, no single spiritual or cultural heritage that will reach back to precolonial ways of being and knowing.’ She writes about the ‘stolen lands’ where she was born, her father’s Indian heritage, her mother’s European one, and her experiences of growing up in Canada, before moving to the United States. For Singh, home is a concept which she has not often experienced; until she begins a deep friendship with a queer man, Nathan, who will become her daughter’s father. They live together, in a house converted to have two separate living spaces, and coparent. She writes: ‘I have only just begin to feel this home-feeling with you, with your father, in our everyday acts of collective world-making. For the first time, I wonder whether I need to stop drifting, not so much in body as in spirit… To live here, right where we are, and to articulate that living by learning who and how and when and why we have all come to live here, to belong here.’

Singh is open about the challenges of parenting her young daughter in their home in Richmond, Virginia. Early on in her memoir, she comments: ‘Learning to mother at the end of the world is an infinite toggle between wanting to make you feel safe and needing you to know that the earth and its inhabitants are facing a catastrophic crisis.’ She is also aware that one day, her relationship with her daughter will shift, inescapably; she writes: ‘It is less the inevitability of our break than it is the shape and force of it that haunts me. I know it is not just me you will need to break from, but the entire way of life that I represent… More than any other time in history, what you choose from the past will need to be meticulously studied and selected.’

These breaks which Singh talks about also manifest literally. Whilst writing her memoir, she was recovering from major surgery, when doctors found that the discs between her vertebrae had begun to ‘explode, making it appear… as though my body is being subjected to high-impact collisions.’

The Breaks is ‘both a celebration of queer family-making, communal living and Brown girlhood and a profound meditation on race, inheritance and queer mothering at the end of the world.’ Singh, as this quote on the book’s blurb suggests, encompasses so much within her book, but she does so with intelligence, and captures everything in beautiful, contemplative prose.

The Breaks is intense, intriguing, and so worthwhile. The narrative, given that it was only published in 2021, is incredibly current; she references other challenges which we face on a global scale, such as the pandemic. The way in Singh she directs her articulate speech to her daughter throughout gives it a further sense of urgency. Singh is articulate, and gives voice to the many difficulties which the next generation are sure to face. The Breaks is heavily rooted in existentialism, and what it means to be alive today. Singh gives just as much thought, though, to how – and if – we can possibly move forwards.

I will end this review with something wonderful that Singh’s daughter said, as quite a young child. At the age of five, she declared: ‘If I was president… I would give everyone a place to live for free. I would make gardens all throughout the city that would grow food to feed us all. I would give everyone enough clothes to wear, and make sure their outfits suited their style. I’d make sure everyone had a friend.’ If the next generation is filled with wonderfully compassionate people like this, perhaps the world does have a chance to save itself, after all.

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‘The Way Through the Woods: Overcoming Grief Through Nature’ by Long Litt Woon ****

Malaysian anthropologist Long Litt Woon’s The Way Through the Woods: Overcoming Grief Through Nature is a meditation on grief, and how nature helped her to regain some of the joy in life. The memoir centres around the sudden death of her Norwegian husband, Eiolf Olsen, in 2010. The pair had been married for thirty-two years, when she received the news that Eiolf had collapsed at work in his Oslo office, and could not be resuscitated. Long was understandably bereft, ‘disoriented, aimless, lost.’ It is only when she chooses to wander ‘deep into the woods and attunes herself to Nature’s chorus that she learns how the wild might restore us to hope, and to life after death.’

I love blends of memoir and the natural world, and was immediately drawn to this tome. I have found a lot of solace in nature myself, particularly during the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021. I was particularly interested in the way in which Long found solace in learning about mushrooms, with the help of various Norwegian associations. She first signed up to an introductory mushroom-picking course run by the Natural History Museum in Oslo, where she meets others from all walks of life: ‘Like all other communities, mushroom pickets represent a microcosm of society as a whole, although I didn’t see this to begin with.’ Something was sparked within her to continue on her journey of learning. She took the ‘inspector’s exam’, which has existed in Norway since 1952, and she is now a certified mycology professional. For Long, passing this exam was a ‘rite of passage’.

At the outset of her memoir, Long writes: ‘My new interest in mycology brought joy and meaning to my life at a time when everything looked very dark.’ She goes on to write that her concept for the book underwent many changes before publication: ‘… the link between my exploration of the world of fungi and my wandering through the wilderness of grief seemed to be the most interesting story here. So this book tells of two parallel journeys: an outer one, into the realm of mushrooms, and an inner one, through the landscape of mourning.’ She tells us that the study of fungi ‘offered my fresh perspectives and led me, little by little, to a new standpoint.’

Long’s prose is beautiful, particularly when she weaves in her descriptions of the natural world: ‘It is very easy, I find, to be lured deeper and deeper into the dark forest and suddenly find one’s self alone and surrounded by huge trees, with no obvious way back. At such times, it is not hard to imagine that you can hear the trees whispering to one another that they are going to catch this little mushroom gatherer with their long branches.’ I also really enjoyed the calm which she portrayed; when looking for mushrooms, you have to use all of your focus, ‘turn off your mobile phone… and simply be there – in the woods.’

Throughout, Long speaks of her grief, and her disbelief about Eiolf’s death, with raw honesty. She says: ‘I wanted to suffer every ounce of the torment… It was confirmation that he had lived, that he had been my husband. I did not want that to be gone as well.’ Later, she adds: ‘Life doesn’t end in a single moment, with one last gasp for breath. Death is made up of thousands of little moments, divine in their banality. They are so precious and I treasure every one of them.’ Following Eiolf’s funeral, she painfully remembers the following: ‘I went willingly into an inner exile. My sorrow swelled until it took over my life. I was swamped by grief: I woke in the morning, but had no desire to get up. I viewed the world through one single, solitary peephole, that of loss and pain… The end of a great era in my life was a fact.’ Her grief prompts Long to ask endless questions of herself, even whether she should stay in Norway, where she has lived for the majority of her life. She asks such things as: ‘Who am I now? I can’t live the life I once had, but I don’t know how my new life should be… I don’t really know what I’m looking for.’

Long describes, in detail, the many effects of her grief, from the complete numbing of her senses and loss of appetite, to insomnia. She no longer has interest in things which used to bring her joy, like reading, or music: ‘The shock of Eiolf’s death had plunged me into a deep well and apathy settled over me like a thick blanket that I couldn’t kick off.’

Mushrooms are used for so much in the modern world: as the basis for drugs essential for organ transplantation and cancer treatment; as natural dyes for yarn; as a source of inspiration for nature photographers; as food. The world of fungi is vast, and it is difficult even for experts to pinpoint the numbers of different species around the world. In Norway, Long imparts, 44,000 species have been recorded: fungi make up almost 20% of this total, whereas only 0.2% are mammals. There are such differences between them, too. As Long writes: ‘… fungi present a riotous cornucopia: mushrooms come not only in brown and white, but in every imaginable, and unimaginable, shape and hue. They may be stubby and springy, lovely and graceful, delicate and transparent, or so spectacular and bizarre that they seem like something from another planet.’

Long is open about how her new interest soon became a passion, and the positive effects which it had upon her. She is keen to share her experiences, telling us: ‘With each new mushroom I learned to identify, every new site I visited, and every new mushroom buddy I made, I gradually became more integrated into the community. And, although I didn’t know it, each of these experiences represented another tiny mouse-step towards the end of the black tunnel of mourning.’

The Way Through the Woods was originally published in Norwegian, and has been flawlessly translated into English by Barbara J. Haveland. The book was longlisted for the Jan Michalski Prize for Literature in 2019, and contains a ‘mushroom register’ in its appendix, along with an extensive bibliography and notes section. There are also charming illustrations scattered throughout the narrative, all of which were drawn by the author.

The narrative has been cleverly arranged, split into more measured sections which focus heavily upon mycology, and other, more emotional chapters about her relationship with Eiolf, and her place in the world after his death. Both are shown in different fonts. Ideas between the two inevitably overlap, but I did find this to be an interesting technique.

The Way Through the Woods is highly expansive, both in terms of the memories it relates, and its nature writing. I found Long to be an utterly charming narrator, and particularly loved the scene in which she describes a mushroom which she has been seeking for a long time: ‘This discovery seemed totally undeserved, like being allowed to lap up the vanilla custard filling without having to eat the rest of the bun first.’ Long is an excellent writer, blending serious subjects, and a real keenness for the world around her, with humour. She shares with us moments big and lifechanging, and small and comforting. The mycology here is very specific, but other themes – death, loss, grief, healing – are universal.

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‘Notes From an Island’ by Tove Jansson and Tuulikki Pietilä *****

Tove Jansson and Tuulikki ‘Tooti’ Pietilä’s collaborative Notes From an Island was my most anticipated release of 2021.  The beautifully designed large-format hardback, filled with beautiful writing and gorgeously evocative paintings, was published in its first English translation by the wonderful Sort Of Books, who have brought so much of Jansson’s work to an English-speaking audience.  Notes From an Island pulls together snippets of writing from Tove, in the form of both diary entries and vignettes, extracts from ‘maverick seaman’ Brunström’s log, and Pietilä’s artwork, 24 ‘copperplate etchings and wash drawings’ which she made during the 1970s. 

When she was in her late forties, Jansson, most famous for her delightful Moomin stories, ‘raced to build a cabin on an almost barren outcrop of rock in the Gulf of Finland’, on an island named Klovharun, located at the edge of the Pellinge archipelago.  For the next ‘twenty-six summers’, Jansson and her life partner, Pietilä, ‘retreated there to live, paint and write, energised by the solitude and shifting seascapes.’  They remained there until their mid-seventies, eventually relinquishing their beloved cabin in 1991.  Notes From an Island, which came out in its original Swedish in 1996, is ‘both a memoir and homage to the island the two women loved intensely.’  

The short introductory publisher’s note states the differences between Jansson’s previous summer home, which she shared with her mother and brother on the ‘leafy and welcoming’ island of Bredskär, and the ‘stark’ Klovharun, ‘the preserve of warring gulls and terns’.  The note goes on to praise this ‘moving homage to a tiny, rugged island and to a profound and enduring relationship.’ 

Jansson begins by writing about Bredskär, where, she says: ‘We had everything, albeit in miniature – a little forest with a woodland path, a little beach with a safe place for the boat, even a little marsh with some tufts of cotton grass.’  She goes on to tell us that Klovharun is between just 6- and 7,000 square metres; it is ‘shaped like an atoll’, divided by a lagoon in its middle.  Both Jansson and Pietilä ‘relished the storms that would lash the granite rocks, marooning them for days.’   

One of my favourite things about Jansson’s work – and there are many! – is the way in which she captures the natural world.  Notes From an Island begins: ‘I love rock – sheer cliffs that drop straight into the ocean, unscalable mountain peaks, pebbles in my pocket.  I love prising stones out of the ground, heaving them aside and letting the biggest ones roll down the granite slope into the water!  As they rumble away, they leave behind an acrid whiff of sulphur.’  She writes with such care, especially regarding colour, texture, and scents: ‘On some of the blasted surfaces’, she tells us, when their cabin is being constructed, ‘the rock has an unusual colour, like oxblood or Pompeiian red, a hard colour to capture.  Also the rainwater in the little hollows at the bottom of the pit is red or cadmium yellow.’  Later, she writes of quite a spectacle, when the sea ice breaks up before her eyes: ‘When we woke up, the whole ocean was full of broken ice.  Unbelievable tabernacles floated by, driven by a mild south-west breeze, statuesque, glittering, as big as trolleys, cathedrals, primeval caverns, everything imaginable!  And they changed colour whenever they felt like it – ice blue, green and, in the evenings, orange.  Early in the morning they would be pink.’ 

Jansson’s notes are occasionally quite matter-of-fact, but I still found that they expressed a great deal; for instance: ‘Tooti is building shelves in the cellar. / It’s starting to get cold.’  She captures comedic scenes, particularly with regard to sailor and general handyman, Brunström, and his escapades.  She writes of the time when he found ‘a huge ship’s mast, pitch-black, and with all the fittings still in place’.  Brunström was determined to use this in the construction of the cabin, and had real trouble towing it ashore, almost destroying his boat in the process.  There are moments of childish delight, too.  On visiting one March, Jansson writes: ‘We were exhilarated by change and expectation and ran headlong here and there in the snow and threw snowballs at the navigation marker.  Tooti made a toboggan out of thin strips of wood, and we rode it again and again from the top of the island far out across the ice.’ 

Thomas Teal’s translation is truly excellent, and he captures so much of Jansson’s glee, as well as the often amusing brevity from Brunström’s log.  On the 14th of October 1964, for instance, he writes: ‘Jansson shot an eider by mistake this morning and the ladies boiled it for three hours but it made a lousy dinner.’  Teal evokes Jansson’s artistry, and her keen eye for noticing: ‘Sometimes we build things to be solid and lasting, and sometimes to be beautiful, sometimes both.’  

Notes From an Island comes together wonderfully.  The matter-of-fact entries of Brunström contrast wonderfully with Jansson’s beautiful eye for detail.  Both are complemented by Pietilä’s full-page artwork, which makes masterful use of light and shadow using only brown tones.  I loved the collaborative approach taken here; it is something I see quite rarely when reading, and I really appreciated the level of detail which it brought to the book.  At just 94 pages, this is one to really linger over.  Notes From an Island is entrancing; it is a glorious celebration of nature, of solitude, of collaboration, of love. 

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Six Books I’ve Enjoyed in 2022…

… but have not written reviews for. Because I read as often as I can, but have a full-time job, there are many books I would like to review, but sadly don’t get chance to. I thought I would collect a few of these together so that they don’t fall through the cracks. Their content is relatively varied, but these are just a few titles which I have thoroughly enjoyed this year, and would highly recommend. As ever, let me know if you have read any of these, or if they pique your interest.

  1. In and Out of the Garden by Sara Midda (1982; non-fiction; gardens and growing; charming illustrations; beautifully put together)

‘Sara Midda’s richly illustrated In and Out of the Garden has delighted readers and critics alike. Diana Vreeland praised it as “delightful and delicious,” and Laura Ashley called it “pure inspiration.”

The most elegant and subtle of books to give and to have, it evokes the English gardens of Sara Midda’s childhood, sowing the imagination with glorious images. Dozens and dozens of illustrations and tender reflections recall a hut in the wood, or a topiary maze, a summer day spent podding peas, or an herb patch that yields Biblical fragrances. Ruby-red radishes are the jewels of the underworld. Myriad colors fall upon warm green moss. Painted with Sara Midda’s fine brush, it is a book of lasting enchantment.’

2. Raising a Rare Girl by Heather Lanier (2020; memoir; illness narrative; rare genetic disorder; heartfelt and honest)

‘Award-winning writer Heather Lanier’s memoir about raising a child with a rare syndrome, defying the tyranny of normal, and embracing parenthood as a spiritual practice that breaks us open in the best of ways.

Like many women of her generation, Heather Lanier did everything by the book when she was expecting her first child. She ate organic foods, recited affirmations, and drew up a birth plan for an unmedicated labor in the hopes that she could create a SuperBaby, an ultra-healthy human destined for a high-achieving future.

But her daughter Fiona challenged all of Lanier’s preconceptions. Born with an ultra-rare syndrome known as Wolf-Hirschhorn, Fiona received a daunting prognosis: she would experience significant developmental delays and might not reach her second birthday. Not only had Lanier failed to produce a SuperBaby, she now fiercely loved a child that the world would sometimes reject. The diagnosis obliterated Lanier’s perfectionist tendencies, along with her most closely held beliefs about certainty, vulnerability, God, and love.

With tiny bits of mozzarella cheese, a walker rolled to library story time, a talking iPad app, and a whole lot of pop and reggae, mother and daughter spend their days doing whatever it takes to give Fiona nourishment, movement, and language. They also confront society’s attitudes toward disability and the often cruel assumptions made about Fiona’s worth. Lanier realizes the biggest question is not, Will my daughter walk or talk? but, How can I best love my girl, just as she is?

Loving Fiona opens Lanier up to new understandings of what it means to be human, what it takes to be a mother, and above all, the aching joy and wonder that come from embracing the unique life of her rare girl.’

3. Lily’s Promise by Lily Ebert and Dov Forman (2021; memoir; Holocaust; honest, heartwrenching, and hopeful)

‘When Holocaust survivor Lily Ebert was liberated in 1945, a Jewish-American soldier gave her a banknote on which he’d written ‘Good luck and happiness’. And when her great-grandson, Dov, decided to use social media to track down the family of the GI, 96-year-old Lily found herself making headlines round the world. Lily had promised herself that if she survived Auschwitz she would tell everyone the truth about the camp. Now was her chance.

In Lily’s Promise she writes movingly about her happy childhood in Hungary, the death of her mother and two youngest siblings on their arrival at Auschwitz in 1944 and her determination to keep her two other sisters safe. She describes the inhumanity of the camp and the small acts of defiance that gave her strength. From there she and her sisters became slave labour in a munitions factory, and then faced a death march that they barely survived.

Lily lost so much, but she built a new life for herself and her family, first in Israel and then in London. It wasn’t easy; the pain of her past was always with her, but this extraordinary woman found the strength to speak out in the hope that such evil would never happen again.’

4. Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane (2019; novel set in the 1980s; family saga; interesting characters and dynamics)

‘Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope, rookie NYPD cops, are neighbors in the suburbs. What happens behind closed doors in both houses—the loneliness of Francis’s wife, Lena, and the instability of Brian’s wife, Anne, sets the stage for the explosive events to come.

In Mary Beth Keane’s extraordinary novel, a lifelong friendship and love blossoms between Kate Gleeson and Peter Stanhope, born six months apart. One shocking night their loyalties are divided, and their bond will be tested again and again over the next thirty years. Heartbreaking and redemptive, Ask Again, Yes is a gorgeous and generous portrait of the daily intimacies of marriage and the power of forgiveness.’

5.Ghostly: A Collection of Ghost Stories, edited by Audrey Niffenegger (2015; short stories; wonderfully curated; varied content; great illustrations)

‘Collected and introduced by the bestselling author of The Time Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry–including Audrey Niffenegger’s own fabulous new illustrations for each piece, and a new story by her–this is a unique and haunting anthology of some of the best ghost stories of all time.

From Edgar Allan Poe to Kelly Link, M.R. James to Neil Gaiman, H.H. Munro to Audrey Niffenegger herself, Ghostly reveals the evolution of the ghost story genre with tales going back to the eighteenth century and into the modern era, ranging across styles from Gothic Horror to Victorian, stories about haunting–haunted children, animals, houses. Every story is introduced by Audrey Niffenegger, an acclaimed master of the craft, with some words on its background and why she chose to include it. Audrey’s own story is “A Secret Life With Cats.”

Perfect for the classic and contemporary ghost story aficionado, this is a delightful volume, beautifully illustrated by Audrey, who is a graphic artist with great vision. Ghostly showcases the best of the best in the field, including Edith Wharton, P.G. Wodehouse, A.S. Byatt, Ray Bradbury, and so many more.’

6. The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman (2019; historical fiction; magical realism; creative; beautifully written)

‘In Berlin, at the time when the world changed, Hanni Kohn knows she must send her twelve-year-old daughter away to save her from the Nazi regime. She finds her way to a renowned rabbi, but it’s his daughter, Ettie, who offers hope of salvation when she creates a mystical Jewish creature, a rare and unusual golem, who is sworn to protect Lea. Once Ava is brought to life, she and Lea and Ettie become eternally entwined, their paths fated to cross, their fortunes linked.

Lea and Ava travel from Paris, where Lea meets her soulmate, to a convent in western France known for its silver roses; from a school in a mountaintop village where three thousand Jews were saved. Meanwhile, Ettie is in hiding, waiting to become the fighter she’s destined to be.

What does it mean to lose your mother? How much can one person sacrifice for love? In a world where evil can be found at every turn, we meet remarkable characters that take us on a stunning journey of loss and resistance, the fantastical and the mortal, in a place where all roads lead past the Angel of Death and love is never ending.’

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‘The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting’ by Alanna Okun ****

I am a keen crafter, and have had my eye on Alanna Okun’s essay collection, The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater, for quite some time. I was grateful to be able to purchase a copy with some Christmas money, and settled down to read about another woman who shares similar enthusiasms to myself. I was in two minds as to whether I should review this essay collection, as it is rather a niche topic, but I do not feel as though Okun’s thoroughly entertaining book has received anywhere near the amount of attention which it deserves, especially in the UK.

Let me begin by writing about the so-called ‘curse of the boyfriend sweater’ of the book’s title. It is a superstition within the crafting community that soon after you begin knitting your significant other an item of clothing – usually a jumper, or sweater – they will end your relationship. I have knitted my boyfriend several things throughout the years we’ve been together, and we’re still very much an item, so I can’t say I believe in the ‘curse’ myself. However, I do find it interesting that it has become such a widespread view amongst knitters, crocheters, and the like. Okun includes an entire chapter detailing different things she has knitted, crocheted, or embroidered, for previous boyfriends.

Okun is honest throughout, talking about her experiences with mental health. Her crafting has helped her to make it through periods of ‘anxiety, grief, heartbreak, ecstatic joy, [and] total boredom.’ She writes that ‘even when we can’t control anything else, we can at least control the sticks, string, and fabric right in front of us.’ This is exactly the reason why so many of us turned to crafting during the many Covid lockdowns we faced globally in 2020 and 2021; making something is a comfort, and it does give us an element of power, however small and tentative, in such uncertain times. As Okun says: ‘Making anything feels like seizing control, like defiant reversal in the face of grief; this thing is yours, the way you would like it to be, and it exists where before there was nothing.’

The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater is largely based on knitting, my craft of choice, but Okun does dabble in other things throughout – crochet, embroidery, and dabbling in ‘most fibery pursuits’. In a lovely nod to the craft, the initial chapter is titled ‘Casting On’, and the final, ‘Casting Off’. The feelings which she captures in her opening chapter are so familiar to me: ‘You can’t really know what a project is going to be until it’s done,’ she says. ‘You could start it as a gift only to find you want to keep it for yourself, or the reverse. You could realize it looks nothing like what you intended and either despair or delight. Or, as so often happens, you could reach a place of peaceful ambivalence and decide to just keep pushing through, even though you’re not sure, even though you don’t know what it will be after you’ve invested all those hours and all that yarn. You can trust the project to reveal itself to you, outside of your control.’

I loved the way that Okun spoke about the skill needed to craft, something which I feel is still relatively underappreciated in the wider world. She writes: ‘The fact remains that knitting and its cousins aren’t innate skills. They’re taught and they’re learned and reinforced and passed down, in an interlocking series of leaps that builds and layers just like the crafts themselves.’ This legacy of crafting is so important to me; I was taught to knit by my grandmother and mother, and to sew by my mother. Yes, I have picked up skills in both crafts along the way, many of which have come from practice, or from watching many YouTube tutorials, but the foundations which I had sparked a lifelong interest. Both have been crafts which have ebbed and flowed in my life, but for the last three years, I have always had a knitting project on the go, however big – shawls, jumpers – or small – socks, reusable cotton washcloths. I identified so much with Okun when she described the period after her grandmother had taught her how to knit, and the way in which the craft has been a constant for her in adulthood: ‘I get better, I lose interest, I regain it, I improve. I get a boyfriend, I get into college, I get a job, I knit. I am anxious, I am joyful, I am lonely, I knit.’

Okun writes so honestly about crafting, and the fact that not every project embarked on is a success. Just like the author, I have done my fair share of frogging the initial wonky scarves, and projects where I had little knowledge, and selected a wildly inappropriate yarn for a pattern. As with everything though, confidence grows with skill; the more I have practiced left- and right-leaning increases, Icelandic bind-offs, and German short rows, the better I have become. Okun does not profess to be an expert in anything, which I found really refreshing. The author is the first to own up to mistakes which she has made, and points out things which she does differently to other crafters.

I was internally cheering when reading parts of The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater; for instance, when Okun writes: ‘I want people to ask me about my sweaters and tank tops; I want them to know that’s the sort of person I am, that I have this extremely minor superpower even if they think it’s weird or dorky. This is how I choose to spend my time and my brain space, and I want my physical being to reflect that, at least every once in a while.’

Throughout, I felt as though I was having a conversation with a very like-minded crafty friend. Okun is unfailingly bright, and I appreciated the informal tone which she used throughout. She writes at length about friendships and relationships, to the extent that I think those without crafting backgrounds could still very much enjoy her writing and perspectives.

I shall end this review with a lovely piece of wisdom which Okun imparts in one of her essays. She writes: ‘Projects, even the kind that are not so emotionally loaded, always feel smaller when they’re done, when you’re not obsessing over individual components anymore. The same is true for spans of time: happy periods, mourning periods – all of them flatten when you can look back on them from arm’s length, when you can hold them in your hands and stick them to the wall, when you can look at them in the context of your life.’